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The Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals

What happened to the crew of the Carroll A. Deering?

By B. JesseePublished 10 months ago 6 min read
The Carroll A. Deering. (public domain)

One of the most written about maritime mysteries in history, the Carroll A. Deering ghost ship was found run aground on the infamously treacherous Diamond Shoals, off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina on 31 January 1921. Its crew was missing with no indication of their whereabouts or why they abandoned ship.


The Carroll A. Deering, a five-masted commercial schooner, was built in 1919 by the G.G. Deering Company in Bath, Maine. Designed to carry cargo, it was named after the son of G.G. Deering. The vessel had only been in service for a year when it began its final voyage to Brazil.

The Deering set sail from Norfolk, Virginia on 22 August 1920 in "tip-top shape" heading for Rio de Janeiro with a cargo of coal. Aboard the vessel was the experienced Captain William H. Merritt and a crew of ten men. A few days later, Captain Merritt fell ill and was hastily replaced by Captain W.B. Wormell. Despite this, the ship delivered its cargo on schedule and set sail, due to arrive in Virginia in December.

The Carroll A. Deering as seen from the Cape Lookout lightship on 28 Jan. 1921. (US Coast Guard, public domain)

The next time the Deering was seen was on 28 January 1921, when she passed and hailed the Cape Lookout Lightship. According to lightship keeper Captain Jacobson, the crew was milling around suspiciously and the crewman he spoke to, who reported that the ship had lost its anchors, did not look or act like an officer. Jacobson took note of this, but could not report it due to a malfunctioning radio. The next day, the vessel was spotted at approximately 5:45 p.m. passing the SS Lake Elon southwest of the Diamond Shoals Lightship. The Deering seemed to be steering a "peculiar course." This was the last known report of the ship before she was found run aground.

Diamond Shoals, off the coast of North Carolina. (Google Maps)

On 31 January 1921, at 6:30 a.m., C.P. Brady of the Cape Hatteras Coast Guard Station spotted a five-masted schooner run aground on Diamond Shoals. According to reports, the ship's decks were awash, the sails were still set, and the lifeboats were missing. No signs of life could be seen and the ship appeared abandoned.

Rough waters prevented surf boats from reaching the wreck and help had to be called in. On 4 February, the wrecker Rescue arrived and, along with the cutter Manning, was able to reach the battered ship around 9:30 a.m. Captain James Carlson of the Rescue was able to confirm the ship's identity after boarding. Investigation revealed that all the personal belongings of the crew, certain papers, and key navigational equipment, as well as the ship's logs and anchors, were missing. Not a single soul was left aboard.

In March 1921, the Deering, being unsalvageable, was towed away from the shoals to keep it from being a hazard to other vessels, then destroyed.

In April, a Buxton, North Carolina resident by the name of Christopher Columbus Gray claimed that he had found a note in a bottle, which told of the capture of the Deering by pirates. Handwriting experts initially authenticated the note as being written by Herbert Bates, an engineer aboard the ship, but later examinations by experts from the federal government proved the letter was a hoax written by Gray himself. In May, Captain Merritt, Mrs. Lula Wormell (Capt. Wormell's wife), and Rev. Dr. Addison Lorimer made a visit to Washington and convinced Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to open an investigation into the incident.

In July, an Agent Thompson of the FBI visited Dare County to investigate. While there, he followed many diverse leads, including stories of Bolshevik-sympathizing pirates, rum runners, and mutiny. The investigation yielded no conclusive results and was closed in late 1922.


Through the years, numerous theories about what happened to the Deering have been put forward.

The U.S. government, the Weather Bureau in particular, strongly advocated that a series of severe hurricanes that were raging in the Atlantic at the time were to blame. However, the Deering was heading away from the path of those hurricanes and evidence suggests that the crew evacuated in an orderly, rather than panicked, fashion.

One theory was that a group of pirates were responsible. Captain Wormell's widow strongly believed in this theory, but no real evidence for this has been found and no suspected pirates were arrested.

Around the time of the Deering incident, police raided the headquarters of the United Russian Workers Party, a Communist front group, in New York City and found papers that told members of the organization to seize American ships and sail them to Russia. These papers were then circumstantially linked to several shipboard strikes the previous year.

At the time, it was widely believed that this was what had happened to the Deering, an explanation strongly advocated for by hardline anti-communists in the government. However, no definitive proof could be found to show that communists were seizing ships at all, let alone that they had tried to capture the Deering.

Another theory speculates that a group of liquor smugglers based in the Bahamas had stolen the ship to use as a rum-running vessel. Author Richard Winer stated in his 2000 book, Ghost Ships, that the hold of the Deering was large enough to carry roughly a million dollars worth of liquor. Even if this is true, it seems unlikely that smugglers would choose to hijack a ship that was conspicuous, easily identifiable, and comparatively slow.

Yet another theory is that the ship fell victim to mutiny. While in Rio de Janeiro, Captain Wormell was seen to be in conflict with his first mate and was heard making derisive comments toward his crew, which could indicate that his relationship with the crew was problematic. Captain Jacobson's claims that the crewman he spoke to was not an officer and was definitely not Captain Wormell seem to lend credence to this theory, but nothing definitive has ever been proven.

Of course, as with any other ghost ship, there are always those who put forth theories involving the paranormal. Charles Fort was the first to mention the Deering in a "mysterious" context and generations of writers since have followed suit.

The "Bermuda Triangle." (Alphaios/Majestic, public domain)

Most often it is claimed that the so-called "Bermuda Triangle" is responsible for the incident. However, Diamond Shoals (the ship's crash site) and Cape Lookout (its last known point of communication) are several hundred miles away from the area generally accepted as being part of the Bermuda Triangle. Regardless of where the incident occurred, there most definitely has not been any evidence found to indicate the involvement of anything "supernatural."


To this day, no trace of the crew, the ship's log, or other missing items has ever been found and there is no official explanation for the incident.

The most likely explanation seems to be mutiny. Alternatively, it is possible that bad weather forced the ship into the shoals and the crew abandoned ship on the lifeboats, only to find themselves unable to row to shore. If they had been swept out to sea in only small open lifeboats, they would likely have died and the boats eventually would have sunk.

While logical, neither of these theories - or any others - have any real evidence to support them. Unfortunately, it looks like we're never going to get a satisfying conclusion to the Carroll A. Deering mystery.


National Park Foundation (2015, Oct. 28). The legend of the ghost ship: Carroll A. Deering. Retrieved from

National Park Service (n.d.). The ghost ship of the outer banks. Retrieved from

Simpson, B. (2005). Ghost ship of Diamond Shoals: The mystery of the Carroll A. Deering. Retrieved from

Stick, D. (1989). Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina coast. Retrieved from

Winer, R. (2000). Ghost ships: True stories of nautical nightmares, hauntings, and disasters. Berkley Books.

Pop CultureMysteryHistorical

About the Creator

B. Jessee

Appalachian writer & nerd. Writes about the strangest bits of history and science as well as science news.

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